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(Enlarge) Fort Meade Highsteppers Track and Field coach Cliff Timpson talks with Trevon Edwards, 16, before his long jump event at last week's four-day meet at Prince George's County Sports and Learning Complex. Team members and coaches are preparing for the Junior Olympics as 13 young athletes will compete for national titles. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Kyle Richardson)

For the past several years, the installation has been strongly represented at the highest level of competition in youth athletics as members from the Fort Meade Highsteppers Track and Field Club routinely qualify for the Junior Olympics.

This year is no different.

The team is sending 13 young athletes to compete at the Junior Olympics next month after a successful qualifying meet in Landover last week. The four-day meet at Prince George's County Sports and Learning Complex pared down the pool of athletes from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., who will advance.

Athletes who finished in the top five in each event will compete in the national championship meet scheduled July 23-29 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Highsteppers coach Cliff Timpson is confident in the athletes' abilities as they head into the Junior Olympics.

"They look ready," he said. "I believe they'll do better."

The path to this year's Junior Olympics was more difficult than in the past as the team switched associations for the season to attend the Baltimore-based championships.

Previously, the Highsteppers competed in the Amateur Athletic Union, whose championship will be in Houston this year. To save money and cut back on travel, the team decided to move associations and stay local for the finals.

Most of the other AAU teams in the area also have switched to USATF, creating a highly competitive field of athletes, said coach Olivia Hunter. The current roster of clubs in the Potomac Valley Region makes the region one of the most challenging, she said.

"This is going to be a very tough year because we have teams from AAU and USATF combined," Hunter said before last week's meet. "It's going to be difficult to advance this year."

Although the Highsteppers have competed at several meets prior to qualifiers, the team's coaches say the first meet at a qualifying level comes somewhat as a shock to many of the athletes. When younger participants competed at a preliminary meet in early June, team members caught their first peek at the competition -- a strong motivator for working harder.

"As the kids got to compete more and seeing the other athletes, seeing what it takes to be there, they all came around," Timpson said. "Especially after the last two weeks, their minds were really set and their eyes were opened."

As the meets continue, Hunter said the competition will become stiffer and should push the Highsteppers even further.

"It's going to be even bigger because a lot of these teams have not been to the kind of meet of this magnitude" she said. "Though they've been to big meets, this is far more important because this is the meet that the kids from all over the region are coming to."

The season started out a little rough, coaches said, but has since turned around to produce more competitive athletes ready for the Junior Olympics.

Traditionally, the race walk has been a successful event for the Highsteppers; several competitors have been to the national championship. But due to athletes moving out of the area, getting too old or changing events, coaches have had to rebuild the squad.

"Overall, we've been doing really good," Hunter said. "The kids are really developing and seem like they're having a lot of fun."

With a little more than a month to the Junior Olympics, Highsteppers veteran and 10-time Junior Olympian Sam Graves, who has qualified for an 11th trip, said the team needs to sharpen its focus in preparation for the championships.

"Stop playing and get more focused," the 17-year-old said.

Sam and Timpson said that rest also will be an important factor heading into the Junior Olympics.

"The key to getting better is always rest, believe it or not," Timpson said. "We're going to work hard when we're in practice. They have the technique. They know what I expect as a coach. So the key is resting and knowing what you need to do, to do better."

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